A Spectator's Critique of the Melbourne Grand Prix
New Formula 1 owners Liberty Media are looking to make the sport more appealing to fans. Last weekend I attended the Melbourne Grand Prix, so I feel that I have a good understanding of the current situation. While F1 racing is still worth going to, there are some ways it could be improved. Some specific to Melbourne, others that could be applied anywhere.
I'll start with the positive aspects to the Melbourne GP. The location is excellent. Albert Park is a beautiful setting. I know it's a cliche, but it has a very good atmosphere. There's a strong sense of occasion, and it draws a big crowd. It also brings a large cohort of European tourists to Melbourne. There's a level of excitement you don't get watching it on TV.
Getting there is easy, with trams to take you back to the city every two minutes. From there you can get to wherever you've parked your car. Unlike the other big motorsport event in Melbourne, Supercars’ Sandown 500, where traveling by car to the circuit, or taking a train on the Dandenong line (one every 20 minutes) are your two options, making leaving at the end of the day a headache. Daniel Ricciardo provided voice-over announcements for the GP express trams. Small details like this make a difference. Despite the tram frequency, it still took a while to get there. My advice for anyone going next year would be to leave early. If you're going multiple days, you'll work it out by Sunday.
There's a very large paddock area, and it takes a long time to cover all of it. Chances are you won't if you're only there for a day. F1 has done well with the off-track entertainment. There's more than enough to keep you occupied between races, or if you just want to spend some time walking around. Food offerings are typical of major events, average quality and expensive. Remember to bring cash, you won't always be able to pay with a card. New for this year was the post race track walk, which was a good way to end the weekend. Cars that have DNFed and been left out on the track are collected during the walk. Health and safety concerns may see that change soon.
Support categories were exactly what you'd expect at the Australian Grand Prix; Supercars, the Australian GT Championship and Carrera Cup. GP2, or F2 as it's now known, has never followed F1 to Australia. Supercars don't have a championship round at the Grand Prix. Perhaps they should. With limited test days, teams sometimes treat the non-points round as a test session and don't allow their drivers to race hard. Offering points might give them some incentive to push harder.
It's a well established fact that you can't see as much at the circuit as you can on TV, and with the cars not as loud as they used to be, the live experience is diminished. One way to improve the spectator experience would be to have more big screens around the circuit. I've been to Supercars events in both general admission and grandstand reserved. Being in the grandstand give you a better view of the track and a place to sit down, but either one will allow you to watch the entire race. Supercars do a good job of providing screens around the circuit, viewable for both grandstand and general admission attendees. F1, on the other hand, only puts them in front of the grandstands. If you've only got a general admission ticket, you have to secure a spot on a viewing mound close to a grandstand, and there aren't many of those with a clear view of the screen. I settled for the mound mound next to the Clark Grandstand, on the back straight. It offered a good view of 300 or so metres of track, and a screen. but not every mound does. If you're on the one near Brabham you won't see as much. The people who didn't have a great view, the serious F1 followers anyway, might just stay home and watch it on TV next year. For the price of a Sunday general admission ticket ($100), this noise/visibility situation isn't good enough. I'm not expecting F1 tickets to be cheap. F1 has every right to charge more than what you'd pay for any national championship, but the experience needs to justify the price. Supercars charges more than the Shannon's Nationals, but delivers a more. F1 should do the same again. You don't pay more just because it's F1. You pay more for F1 because it's better, and from a spectator’s perspective, I'm not sure that it is.
Not helping the situation is that this year's cars don't make for great viewing. They need to be louder. I'm not the first person to complain about this, it's been going on for as long as the hybrid turbo V6 engines have been in use. Nothing has been done about it however. F1 cars are now quieter than the Supercars and Carrera Cup cars that serve as support categories. That's not how it should be.
The other problem with the cars is that they have too much downforce. It makes them faster, but it also prevents drivers from following closely and overtaking. The only way to get in front is through tyre strategy, and that makes for dull racing whenever teams all run similar strategies. The wider tyres give the cars more mechanical grip, allowing drivers to take different lines and make more overtaking maneuvers but it's completely negated by the extra downforce. The net result is that we saw just one legitimate overtake at Melbourne. Even though Albert Park’s layout doesn't allow as much use of DRS as other tracks, that's not enough overtaking.
Reduce the downforce, or change the way it is produced, and keep the bigger tyres and we'll see better racing. It won't be perfect. Wider tyres mean wider cars that leave less room for overtaking and generate more dirty air, and they shorten braking distances making It harder for drivers to try and out-brake each other. Shorter braking distances .amount braking energy that can be recovered for the KERS system.
Should you go next year? Yes, every F1 fan should go to a Grand Prix at least once in their lives. Hopefully, one year in, Liberty Media will have delivered on their promise and improves F1’s entertainment value. As it is it's still worth going to, but don't expect to be blown away by it.